Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lessons From the Pros: Harness the Power of the Simile

One of the most evocative, memorable, and poetic writing techniques is the simile—and its cousin the metaphor. A simile describes something by comparing it to something else: The sky was blue, like a robin’s egg. A metaphor describes something by saying it is something else: The sky was the blue of a robin’s egg. With practice, we can learn to wield these powerful figures of speech with precision and originality, and the result is unforgettably vivid prose.

Master wordsmith William Faulkner did this to admirable effect in his early novel Flags in the Dust (also published in a slightly abridged version under the title Sartoris). For example, in describing a faded Southern society belle, Faulkner employs two powerful similes. He writes that the woman’s “flesh draped loosely from her cheek-bones like rich, slightly soiled velvet; her eyes were like the eyes of an old turkey, mucous and predatory and unwinking.” His choice of similes not only presents a vibrate image for the reader’s mind’s eye, but he also makes his descriptions do double duty by using them to give us a sense of the woman herself.

If you’ll permit me a simile of my own: Similes are like Egyptian chocolate. Their rich, deep sweetness lingers in our memories. Well-placed they work marvels. But be wary of overusing them. Packing your every description with a simile, or a metaphor, only overwhelms the general effect. Throw out all but the most powerful comparisons. Polish those that remain and watch them light up your writing.
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